Monday, August 9, 2010


Referring to Emily Dickinson in a recent NY Times article, Holland Carter wrote, “The one power (she) trusted was the power of language, which she loved. … By her own account she experienced an acute physical reaction to words, a euphoric shock.”

How would she react, I wonder, to recent developments? I’m thinking of the legions of word lovers one hundred and fifty years later writing and reading columns like this one … and Blogs like Mark Peters’ “Wordlustitude” where he recently posted his word- of-the-day, “nanoblahblah” defined as “a tiny bit of nonsense” i.e., “small talk.” Cited usage: “If your pillow talk is limited to nanoblahblah, your partner may not be around for long!”

It may sound silly, but it’s very clever. Nano- from ancient Greek, nanos/dwarf, and blah/silly chatter, which entered our dictionaries in 1918, are combined by a self-styled lexicographer who, in his contemporary way, is every bit as smitten by the look and sound of words as Emily was. (Had Mark been in Amherst in the late 1850’s, they might have been soul mates!)

Nano- was also chosen in 1959 to combine with the 14th century second to define a newly conceived time unit, one billionth of a second.

John Ciardi, in the Foreword to his brilliant “Browser’s Dictionary,” writes, “Linnaeus would have done better to call us Homo loquens, ‘speaking man.’ For though our racial sapience remains in doubt, our loquacity is beyond question … Man is the animal that uses language.”

He continues, “Lewis Thomas in his ‘Lives of a Cell’ describes the nonstop and precision labor of an anthill, … asks if there is any similar ceaseless activity of humankind, and answers that … it is the endless making, multiplying, and changing of language.”

John Tierney in his May 18 NYT column, “Doomsayers Beware, A Bright Future Beckons,” writes, “Progress this century could be impeded by politics, wars, plagues or climate change, but Dr. Ridley argues (in his new book, “The Rational Optimist”) that, as usual, the “apocoholics” are overstating the risks and underestimating innovative responses.” … a fun play on the words, apocalypse and alcoholic, creating “those addicted to apocalypse theories” … a new word that could catch on.

ABC News reported recently on “narco-terrorists” operating around the border areas between the US and Mexico. While it’s not yet in the dictionary, we know exactly what it means, thanks to the words-savvy person who joined two ideas.

Ross Douthat in a recent NYT column, “Europe’s Minaret Moment” used the word “dhimmitude,” coined in Lebanon in 1982 to mean “producing a state of servility to an Islamic majority.” It’s derived from an old Arabic word dhimma/Islamic Sharia or laws. Douthat writes,
“… envisioning a Muslim-majority ‘Eurabia,’ … the most likely scenario for Europe isn’t dhimmitude; it’s a long period of tension, punctuated by spasms of violence, that makes the continent a more unpleasant place without fundamentally transforming it.”

In this age of globalization and flash-fast transportation of goods and ideas, our words will come from all over the planet, marrying up, shot-gun style, with words from different cultures to define new concepts.

I’m euphoric!

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